The stigma of addiction and mental illness
As far as we’ve come as a society in our understanding of addiction there is still an overarching societal stigma that comes with being an addict or an alcoholic. The pervasive thought being that addicts and alcoholics are some shadowy figures lurking around the corner ready to rob you for their fix. While in some cases this may be true, the reality is that more than likely the addict or alcoholic lives next door to you. They may be your co-worker or friend and they can be found in all walks of life regardless of race or socioeconomic background. Let’s take a look at how stigma affects recovery.
Grasping this is difficult for many people because drug addiction and alcoholism is such a foreign concept to them. Many cannot understand why the alcoholic or addict cannot just stop using and many times the people they know afflicted with these ailments do not help in usurping these stigmas because they act erratically and in ways that are not conducive to living a socially acceptable life.
On a societal level, we have seen this stigma play out in harsh prison sentences for drug addicts and the criminalization of addiction. This started in the 70’s with the “War On Drugs” and for 40 years drug addicts have been label incorrectly as bad people. As a society we accepted these ideas and believed that locking up drug addicts was the correct way of going about dealing with this issue, that is until the prison population boomed to over 2 million and we found ourselves facing the reality that maybe our stance wasn’t working.
This same stigma is often attached to other mental illnesses as well and usually, results in similar outcomes. It is estimated that roughly 20% of inmates in jail and 15% of inmates in state prison suffer from some sort of mental illness. Another 250,000 mentally ill people are homeless in this country and this is in part due to the deinstitutionalization that has occurred over the past 50 years. Many of these prisoners and homeless peoples have not been able to get the adequate support that they needed because of a lack of federal and state funding and like the addict and alcoholic many did not seek help out of fear of stigmatization.
No one wants to be labeled as mentally ill. While suffering from a mental illness is many times nothing but a chemical imbalance there is such a negative connotation to it that often people will not seek treatment because they do not want to admit, even to themselves, that something is wrong. So very often people with mental illnesses will attempt to go through their lives without seeking help and suffer unnecessarily due to this.
Luckily the past few years we have seen a shift in the public’s perception of both mental illness and addiction. There has been a growing movement towards ending the uncalled for punishment of these populations and a call for better treatment and public education.
The recent passing of the CARA Bill shows that the stigma attached to alcoholism and addiction is lessening. This bill looks to treat drug addiction as the public health concern is it and get drug addicts and alcoholics the treatment they need, rather than lock them up in cells.
Similarly, a result poll shows that 90% of Americans value mental and physical health equally. This means that there is a growing understanding that mental health issues and mental health wellness are exceedingly important. In 2004 an American Psychological Association study found that nearly half of all American households had someone who was participating in therapy. So with the growing number of individuals seeking help for their own mental health issues, we will hopefully see a destigmatization of mental illness going forward.
As important as the CARA bill and a more enlightened view of mental illness are in alleviating the societal stigma attached to addiction and mental illness, the fact remains that the prevalence of misunderstanding in the wider population towards these diseases still greatly affects many people’s abilities to get help.
Not only does the stigma physically block people from getting the help they so desperately need, but on a personal level many addicts and mentally ill people do not ask for help for fear of reprisal and misunderstanding.
It is difficult enough for someone with an addiction to admit to themselves that they have a problem, as denial and delusion is a chief characteristic of many active users, but admitting to another person their problem can be almost impossible. Add to this dilemma the fact that many people will not understand what you are actually experiencing and you have a recipe for disaster.
This dilemma of the alcoholic or addict is nothing new and in fact, the namesake of 12 Step programs reinforces it. Anonymous. Almost every 12 Step program has the word anonymous in it because at the time they were created for the members to brand themselves in the public as alcoholics would more than likely mean disaster for their careers or families. So they had to hide who they truly were in order to have a safe space in order to recover. This isn’t inherently a bad thing as people have a choice as to whether or not they want to put out into the public sphere their personal business, but the fact that they were anonymous out of necessity and not choice speaks volumes to what many alcoholics and addicts have experienced.
To a person who is on the fringe of asking for helping with their addiction the fear of outing themselves as having a problem is very real and very difficult to overcome. There is the fear that going away to rehab for a month or so will bring unwanted scrutiny and questions that they’d rather not answer. There is the fear that people will turn their backs on them because they don’t understand what being an addict is. And there is the fear that asking for help will be perceived as a sign of weakness and not strength. All of this combines to create a scenario where people will remain silent about their need for help for far longer than was necessary.
This is what a person with a mental illness is up against as well. We are all guilty of it to one degree or another. Let’s say you are talking to someone that you do not really know and they tell you that they suffer from schizophrenia. No matter how understanding or empathetic a person you are, you will on some level pull back from that person because of fear. Knowing this, and finding it difficult to admit to themselves that they have an illness keeps many mentally ill people from seeking treatment. They try to hide the fact that they suffer from an illness and so many will never receive the help they so desperately need.
As far as we’ve come in our understanding of addiction and mental illness we still have a ways to go in order to get treatment and services to those who are in need. On a personal level, many people are understanding and accepting but collectively as a society these personal inclinations seem to fall apart. We still tend to shun and belittle addicts and those who suffer from a mental illness, which makes asking for help that much harder. Hopefully, as we continue to discuss these topics of how stigma affects recovery in this country we can make it more personable and understanding. This will hopefully result in more people getting help, and fewer people hiding their illnesses for fear that they will be judged and ostracized.
Rose Lockinger is a passionate member of the recovery community. A rebel who found her cause, she uses blogging and social media to raise the awareness about the disease of addiction. She has visited all over North and South America. Single mom to two beautiful children she has learned parenting is without a doubt the most rewarding job in the world. Currently the Outreach Director at Stodzy Internet Marketing.